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Reconstructing images of Paradise: Wayan Suja's ongoing artistic investigation into Balinese identity

Richard Horstman
Richard Horstman

Artivist, observes and reports on developments in the Bali and Indonesian art scenes

Sanur, Bali  /  Wed, December 4, 2019  /  01:25 pm
  • Old Picture #!, 2019 - Wayan Suja

    Old Picture #!, 2019 - Wayan Suja OF Richard Horstman/Richard Horstman

    Old Picture #!, 2019 - Wayan Suja

  • 'Balinese Woman's Countenance', 2019 - Wayan Suja

    'Balinese Woman's Countenance', 2019 - Wayan Suja OF Richard Horstman/Richard Horstman

    'Balinese Woman's Countenance', 2019 - Wayan Suja

  • Visitors enjoy works by Wayan Suja.

    Visitors enjoy works by Wayan Suja. OF Dwi Wibowo/Dwi Wibowo

    Visitors enjoy works by Wayan Suja.

  • A visitor with a smartphone engages with works by Wayan Suja.

    A visitor with a smartphone engages with works by Wayan Suja. OF Dwi Wibowo/Dwi Wibowo

    A visitor with a smartphone engages with works by Wayan Suja.

  • A visitor views RE-IMAGING Identity at Sanur Maya Resort.

    A visitor views RE-IMAGING Identity at Sanur Maya Resort. OF Dwi Wibowo/Dwi Wibowo

    A visitor views RE-IMAGING Identity at Sanur Maya Resort.

  • Exhibition view.

    Exhibition view. OF Dwi Wibowo/Dwi Wibowo

    Exhibition view.


Identity politics and the changing nature of what it means to be Balinese is a common theme for contemporary Balinese artists to explore within their works. This investigation began in earnest in 1970, not in Bali, but Yogyakarta. At the time a group of young artists were studying at the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI); their teacher was the pioneering Balinese modernist Nyoman Gunarsa (1944 to 2017).

Living in a foreign Javanese culture outside their island home and its traditional communal structures, Made Wianta, Pande Gede Supada, Wayan Sika and a later Made Djirna and Nyoman Erawan were open and hungry for a new era of creativity. The outcome was a revolutionary period of expressive art involving the investigation of symbols that construct the Balinese identity.

Wayan Suja, born 1975 in Batubulan, Gianyar represents a generation born a quarter of a century after the forerunners mentioned above. He continues the artistic pursuit into identity. A member of the ground breaking and controversial avant-garde collective Klinik Seni Taxu 2002 – 2006, during the past decade and a half Suja has made valuable contributions, presenting new aesthetic developments in the sphere of Balinese and Indonesian contemporary painting.

Suja utilized plastic as a symbol of the modern consumerism and globalization that were increasingly encroaching upon Pulau Dewata (Island of the Gods) to emphasize his concepts within his works. In Psst, don’t tell anyone I am Balinese too 2005, to describe his ideas about the challenges facing his culture and the dynamics of change, Suja depicted a child with a plastic bag of a popular international food brand upon his head concealing his identity.

His thematic explorations evolved to include various iconic Balinese characters rendered behind layers of plastic. His pictures featured everyone from humble farmers to Ni Pollok, the famous beauty and muse of the celebrated expat Belgian painter Adrien Le Mayeur (1880 to 1958), who came to represent the objectified ‘exotic’ Balinese woman as seen through Western eyes. Suja’s aesthetics advanced also, becoming a technically accomplished oil painter, his images enhanced by excellent colorist skills.

His latest technical developments within his ongoing theme are on show in RE-IMAGING Identity, Suja’s fourth solo exhibition that is open from Nov.15 to Dec. 15 at Maya Sanur Resort. The artist, who is a graduate of fine arts from the Indonesian Art Institute (ISI) Denpasar, presents 21 works ranging in size from 15 by 15 centimeters to 150 by 150 cm in his new visual language, a departure from his signature style.

Suja explores the acrylic medium and while his finished product is remarkably different, the acrylics do prove to be an appropriate vehicle for his ideas. The outcome reveals some impressive results, in particular in Old Picture #1, 2019 and Balinese Woman’s Countenance, 2019. These pictures are an antithesis of the stereotypical images of Bali paradise, giving insights behind the façade that has constructed the Balinese identity within the harmonious and exotic characterizations exploited commercially for mass tourism.

Responding to my question of why he chose to re-evaluate his long-term technical method to the theme, Suja said, “Nowadays I have limited time to work on my ideas, having to compromise my time in the studio with domestic affairs, as well as to social and customary commitments." 

“Working in oils, it is possible to finely tune the details, while with acrylic paint the process is different. Oil and acrylic each have their distinct advantages and disadvantages,” said the artist who held solo exhibitions Mythical Beauty at Galeri Nasional Indonesia, Jakarta and Wrapping Identity at Vanessa Art Link, CIGE, Beijing, China, in 2009.

"With acrylics, there are many secrets that I don't know yet and in the exploration of the medium there are many artistic possibilities that can suddenly be revealed. I think what I have realized in this exhibition is still in its initial stages and that I haven't achieved the maximum results."

Read also: Finding the indigenous voices

Traditional Balinese dance and performance are potent expressive languages with eye movements that enhance the drama of the performers' interactions and communications. Eyes are central to the image of the Balinese identity.

Old Picture #1, 2019 depicts a black line sketch of a Balinese woman in a ceremonial headdress rendered upon an abstract background. Her face is positioned in three-quarter side profile so her right eye is clearly defined with a sharp laser stare, yet her left eye lacks clarity. She glares out from the canvas and her expression is cold. The abstract elements with the composition are a powerful visual force, equally as powerful as her chilling stare, while Suja’s earthy color palette enhances the gloomy atmosphere. Old Picture #1 has a distinct raw, unfinished quality that makes it clearly stand out from the rest.

In Balinese Woman’s Countenance, 2019 Suja accentuates the size of the subject’s eyes, while her intense expression adds an element of the "super-real". “These two portraits of women with glaring expressions are representations of the Balinese whose lives are becoming increasingly complex with other issues outside of their traditional obligations. Angry and tense facial expressions suggest heightened stress levels as the pace of life increasingly speeds up,” said the artist who has exhibited extensively in Bali and Indonesia since 1998 and internationally in Singapore, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Europe. 

This painting’s strength is within the balance of the contrasting realistic and the abstract visual elements. While fascinating nondescript green forms seem to float above the subject’s head, the background appears fractured, emphasizing her emotional state.

Suja was first recognized for his talent in 2000 as one of the finalists of the seventh Phillip Morris Art Awards. He was a top-30 finalist of the Asian Art Prize Sovereign Art Foundation in 2005 and more recently a 2010 finalist of the Indonesia Art Award. Suja admits this is only the beginning of his experimentation and he has yet to achieve aesthetic satisfaction. I too believe that his best is yet to come. (mut)


RE-IMAGING Identity - Wayan Suja

Nov. 15 to Dec. 15, 2019

Maya Sanur Resort

Jl. Danau Tamblingan, Sanur, Bali

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.